The Green Knight Part III: Youth and the Search For Meaning
A key aspect of David Lowery’s interpretation of The Green Knight is to make Gawain a young, inexperienced, and hungry knight looking for a story to tell his King.
The decision to cast Dev Patel is a key part of this. His break out role was visionary series Skins on Channel 4 in the UK. In the show his character Anwar, based heavily on Patel himself, discards his Islamic origins and indulges in drugs, drink, premarital sex and eats pork. He was a rebel, and the role helped cement Patel as an exciting talent, something that was solidified in his starmaking performances in Slumdog Millionaire and Lion.
Patel’s Gawain is an archetypal Millennial - he lives with his mum, stays out all night drinking and hooking up with his girlfriend, a prostitute, and procrastinates as best as he can even when he knows there’s a deadline set for his death. He is a young man akin to many, living in difficult times and unable to find something that would befit him being a knight of Arthur’s round table. He sees the other men as more “knightly” in lifestyle and choices. He can’t match up, so why bother?
This conception of the elevation of certain people above others, declaring their talent and might in the achievements they have accrued through life lends itself to our world of deifying the celebrity. Talent and creativity are often commodified concepts. Think of the TV talent shows judged by kingmakers like Simon Cowell or Paul Hollywood, or glitzy award shows descended upon by attractive movie stars. The celebration of this form of greatness is, in this context, considered a finite resource which is lauded when it is there, but once the star shines less brightly is discarded for something newer and fresher. It is ephemeral, to be held on to at all costs, and to be desired by those who don't (yet) have access.
In art, as in other disciplines, it can be easy to only view your work through the lens of external validation: awards, financial payoff, and admiration. If it doesn’t appear, or disappears quickly, then it can be easy to give up and think of oneself not as a creative spirit, but as somebody who must just not have “it” in them.
Why is Goodness Not Enough?
This striving for perfection, to impress others and show ourselves that we really do have what it takes, despite not feeling like it inside, is captured nicely with an exchange between Gawain and Essel, his girlfriend, shortly before he leaves for the Green Chapel.
Essel : Are you really going to go?
Gawain : Should I?
Essel : I like your head better where it is.
Gawain : I gave my word. I made a covenant.
Essel : This is how silly men perish.
Gawain : Or how brave men become great.
Essel : Why greatness? Why is goodness not enough?
Essel seems to understand the dilemma Gawain exists in: does he go, seek greatness, and perhaps die, losing her. Or does he stay, accept mediocrity and long life, and keep her. Gawain, being young, foolhardy, and hungry for something bigger than his life as it stands, leaves.
For Gawain, one of the most difficult aspects of his quest is to avoid the advances of Lady Bertilak. As part of the Lord’s game, he must return whatever is given to him while staying at the manor. Cleverly, and adding to the sense of mystery surrounding the entirety of his endeavour, Alicia Vikander is cast both as Essel, his girlfriend back in Camelot, and Lady Bertilak.
As in most of the challenges on this quest, he fails this one. He gives away a token of love Essel gives him, a small bell, and has a sexual interlude with the Lady. She, in her beautiful dress and resplendent hairdo, wielding a more refined accent, is irresistible. Afterwards, she tells him “You are no knight.” He leaves in shame of the encounter.
A key aspect of transition into adulthood is becoming a sexual being. Developing desires for others, and the want to act on those desires. Choosing who to be with, the honesty we carry while we’re around them, and how faithful to be in our partnership, is a key aspect of mature development. In modern life, this is perhaps more fraught than it would have been for those first listening to the story Gawain’s quest. We now have technology driving us to compare our current partner with a myriad of other options; there are multiple different forms of relationship status that can lead us off the well trodden path of monogamy; with less religious dictation or shaming in our lives, we now have much greater freedom to make our own way, and our own choices, in this journey. For many of us, this can seem overwhelming and difficult to manage. How does one reconcile a desire for something else, or somebody else, while existing in a pretty happy relationship? For the creator of The Green Knight, this question was so essential it is the crux of Gawain’s penultimate challenge before facing the Knight himself. Gawain fails in his task, like many of us do, and this solidifies his humanity.
5 Virtues and 5 Failures
So it suits this soldier in his spotless armor,
fully faithful in five ways five times over.
For Gawain was as good as the purest gold –
devoid of vices but virtuous, loyal
and kind so bore that badge on both
his shawl and shield alike.
A prince who talked the truth.
A notable. A knight.
Central to the Gawain myth is the symbol of the pentangle, the five-sided star, and the symbol displayed on Gawain’s shield. Five was an important number for people at the time: five senses, five fingers, the five wounds of Christ, the five joys of Mary (whose face was on the inside of the shield) and finally 5 key aspects to his code: Generosity, courtesy, fidelity, honesty, and prowess.
In each of these tasks, he fails, and as such proves himself to be less than the Knight that is expected of him, but a mortal human.
Free-giving - He fails to give a coin to a scavenger looking for loot on a battlefield. As a result he is tricked and tied up, losing his weapons.
Friendliness - When asked to retrieve the skull of Saint Winifred, who he sees as a ghost, he asks for reciprocity. Due to this afront, he is rebuffed and reprimanded.
Chastity (faithfulness) - He gives in to the pursuit by Lady Bertilak, and she leaves him disgusted.
Chivalry - Given the chance to kneel and take his blow with honour, he falters in front of The Green Knight twice, flinching before the blade’s fall.
Piety - In wearing the belt which he is told will protect him from death, he attempts to circumvent death, and therefore defy God. The Green Knight sees through this, and Gawain realises he must give up this protection, and therefore his love of maintaining his life, in order to complete his quest.
He fails at all his tasks until the final moment. The film asks a question: do you accept death and live with this integrity that you are just human, fallible, and trying to live as best a moral life as you can; or do you run from it, chasing glory and fortune but with ruin awaiting you.
We Need More Fallible Heroes
Lowery’s decision not to make Gawain the perfect knight but a disorganised, erring young man is reflective of a type of story we could do with more of today. In the Medieval period, Gawain stood as an example of how even the best of men could be both good and bad. That even the best of Arthur’s Knight is human, mortal, and will one day die, and must accept that fact.
Today, we are saturated with stories of the superhero myth (the latest in the canon which originated in the Knightly Romances): strong and supposedly mighty men and women who falter and must relearn their meaning and face up to the challenges before them.
For Lowery, in a world saturated by distraction, procrastination, and hero worship, finding your own path through this will be filled with difficulty and failure, but ultimately, the best and most human path is one of acceptance of your own humanity. By doing this, then moving toward integrity and balance, we can experience a transcendence beyond the ego we are encouraged by society to inhabit, and find an internal light that will guide us through the darkest and murkiest of paths.
Upon flinching a second time, Gawain asks
“Is this all there is?”
The Green Knight steps back, confused.
“Ought there be more?” he answers.
When life appears not as the sparkling mirage that it is presented to us often in our modern world, but as it really is: complex, muddy, filled with challenge and difficultly, we may do well to ask this question of ourselves.